Why Buy Leica?
Last updated January 27, 2012
- A Word About Luxury
- Mechanical Quality
- Optical Performance
- Market Position
- Focus & Consistency
- Customer Service
- Variety & Custom
- Just Because!
“I'm a man of simple tastes. I'm always satisfied with the best.”
- Oscar Wilde
You might often hear Leica gear, much like say - BMW or Mercedes cars - described as a "luxury good." While we don't necessarily dispute that, there's a lot more to it than that. Sure they're all nice things. But this article will instead focus on all the other reasons - the important reasons - why one would want to consider Leica gear. Not just as a camera or a lens but a photographic tool.
A Word About Luxury
First, let's clear up what exactly a "luxury brand/good" means. From the Wikipedia entry we get a basic definition of "A luxury brand or prestige brand is a brand for which a majority of its products are luxury goods. It may also include certain brands whose names are associated with luxury, high price, or high quality..." Okay, so most of those adjectives seem to fit with the Leica name. But we're not interested in painting the brand as expensive, luxurious items. We're going to focus on the "high quality" part of the definition as it relates to what we're really interested in here - photography.
There are two ways to look at a luxury brand. Those that hit the ground running as an intentional luxury or designer brand and those that become associated with being one. It's a subtle difference, but it is a difference nevertheless. As it relates to Leica, they never set out to be a luxury brand and was only later thought of as one. If anything, Leica has just built cameras and lenses as they always have.
Aside from very few parts such as lens hoods, caps, batteries - by and large, most Leica products are made of metal. Both bodies and lenses are largely comprised of metal and not just the cheapest alloy they can get away with. For the last 58 years and counting, with some brief exceptions - Leica M bodies have had brass top and bottom plates at the very least. This includes their latest digital body, the M9-P. Lens barrels are also made of metal and come in two flavors. The chrome (or silver) lenses are plated brass whereas the black lenses are anodized aluminum. The latter is not meant as a cheaper alternative (though the price is somewhat lower) but rather a lighter (as in weight) option. The point is, there's a distinct lack of plastic in Leica products. The digital bodies more so than film (especially older bodies) though mostly in the form of the buttons and control dial around the LCD area.
Another area where you will see a huge difference is in the tolerances of parts and assembly. Leica has traditionally held very tight tolerances in their manufacturing, going back to the purely mechanical bodies up to the latest MP. When you pick up a Leica lens for example, there is no "slop" (play) in the focus ring whatsoever. Even the slightest movement is transmitted directly to the mechanics. Arguably one can say, "well it's a manual focus lens." Yes, one could say that. But compare Leica to other manual focus lenses such as Voigtländer and Zeiss. While the former seems to get it right, the latter is failing in a somewhat big way in the ZM line (see the "known issues" section in the Zeiss ZM Lenses overview). This doesn't seem to be an issue with Zeiss' current SLR lenses and certainly not in older lenses however... But compare with the Canon EF "L" lenses which have a full-time manual override option to focusing. Clearly, manual focusing was purely an afterthought with these "pro" lenses as there's an awful lot of play in the ring (granted of course, their autofocus is second to none).
You also won't generally hear any rattles in Leica gear - due to the aforementioned tight tolerances and perhaps in part due to the German engineers being so anal about these things. Aperture rings have positive detents and won't make unusual "clack" sounds when hitting either end of the range. Lens mounts are solid and precise. You won't find a Leica lens that rotates slightly in the mount or wobbles. Not necessarily so with SLR lenses where such behavior is described as "normal."
As a final note on build quality and tolerances, keep in mind that Leica gear is largely assembled by hand. Parts are machined in limited quantities, mostly by highly-trained workers in front of more "old school" machinery. There are no huge assembly lines filled with robots in Solms. Leica does not mass produce thousands and thousands of bodies and lenses like more commodity brands such as Canon, Nikon, Pentax, etc. When producing products on such a large scale and as highly automated as they are - you simply cannot have such tight tolerances. The number of rejects on a production run would climb exponentially if you tried.
We're not going to say that other manufacturers aren't capable or competent to make excellent, high quality lenses. But Leica has been at the forefront of many modern technologies such as aspherical and "floating" lens elements and those made from exotic materials. While the concept of aspherical elements dates back to 1678, it was Leica that made them practical to manufacture precisely enough (first used in the original Noctilux 50mm f/1.2 of 1966) and further refined their manufacture (in conjunction with Schott and Hoya) through pressing and molding. Leica was also the first to embrace computers in lens design. Although invented by Dr. Smakula of Zeiss in 1935, Leica further pioneered advanced lens coatings. A lot has changed at Leica over the last couple of decades as they embraced all of these in their latest offerings and most all current lenses utilize one or all of these features.
The tight tolerances and hand assembly mentioned earlier go a long way to ensure a high quality, consistent product. This is especially important in lenses when it comes to things like centering of elements, the feel of the focus ring or focus accuracy for example. Notice how very rarely one hears of "sample variation" when people talk about Leica lenses. On the other hand, visit a Canon, Nikon or even Voigtländer forum and you'll hear it an awful lot. Canon's answer to this was to build "micro-adjustment" features into their bodies where the end-user could dial-in corrections for loose tolerances, sloppy assembly and poor quality control!
While Leica offers a range of optics, from the "entry level" Summarit line all the way up to the Summilux and Noctilux, they don't build "cheap" lenses. Even the Summarit range starts around $1,500 and goes all the way up to over $10,000 with the Noctilux. The lens families are divided by speed, not quality. Unlike some manufacturers, there is no distinction between "regular" and "pro" lenses. With the exception of the Summarit line, they're generally built with a "performance is paramount and cost is secondary" sort of attitude. The goal is to make the best possible lens, not what the average consumer is willing to pay and what combination they can sell the most of.
Of course we're not going to say that Leica lenses are perfect and that's that. Even Leica is limited by the laws of physics, design and cost constraints in the end. And yes, every now and then something slips by or goes out of whack. But by and large, you could easily grab any of the latest lens offerings by Leica and rest assured that you'll be fairly happy with the results.
Leica is a business of course, but they don't try nor have to compete against the likes of Canon, Nikon, Sony, etc. They're not trying to mass produce their products and sell as many widgets as they can push out the door per se. They don't redesign bodies constantly in order to sell more units (known as causing "upgraditis"). They do however, like to push special editions. Hey, we did say they're a business.
Leica also enjoys a relatively niche market. Unlike Canon and Nikon as two examples, they're not competing head-to-head with similar products as everyone else. There are very few current manufacturers of rangefinder cameras, let alone digital ones. Cosina/Voigtländer and Zeiss both make new rangefinders today, but none digital. Epson made the R-D1 series of digital rangefinders (based on the Voigtländer Bessa body) but basically dropped the ball. It hasn't been updated in a worthwhile way since its inception for the most part.
These things explain to a great degree the "luxury" status of the Leica brand. They have little competition in their market and strive for high quality products. As a result, prices not only have to be higher - but one could say they can essentially charge whatever they want.
Focus & Consistency
Leica is technically three distinct companies. They are Leica Camera AG (which we all know and love), Leica Microsystems GmbH and Leica Geosystems AG. What they all have in common is that they're all essentially optical (or scientific) companies. Leica focuses on a select group of products and technologies and can share their expertise within the entire group.
Other manufacturers might have photographical equipment as only a small part of a much larger conglomeration of products. Take Canon for example. Sure, they make cameras. But they also make printers, photocopiers, scanners, projectors, camcorders and video cameras, broadcast equipment and a large variety of other related stuff. Sony is even worse as they make consumer electronics and audio equipment, PCs, video game consoles and more.
Granted, the others are much, much larger companies and have vast resources dedicated to specific product lines. But the point is that Leica is a small company focusing on more or less one thing (scientific apparatus notwithstanding). They've been doing this same thing for a very long time (microscopes since 1849, and small-format photography since the early 1900s). The M camera has more or less stayed the same for the last 58+ years with only minimal changes along the way. The most radical departure was the advent of digital bodies with the M8 and now the M9 and M9-P. But despite being the latest digital bodies - you could put one side-by-side with the original M3 and marvel at their nearly identical appearance and general function.
Technology moves fast. Very fast. Digital cameras today are "old news" not even six months after their introduction. Often, "new and improved" products come out that while provide higher resolutions, improved high-ISO performance or the latest "feature X" - a side-effect is often a change in operation. New buttons and dials that do new things, a jog wheel replaced by a joystick and untold new levels of menus and options. This leads us to the next section.
Ask any long-time M shooter (or even new converts) what they enjoy most about the platform. One thing you'll hear over and over again is "simplicity." Take the latest digital camera from Leica (the M9-P) and Nikon (the D4) and compare them side-by-side. Now granted, they're radically different tools. But indulge yourself for a moment and compare the number of buttons, dials, levers, joysticks and pages upon pages of menu options between the two. Even your average DSLR or point and shoot is vastly more complex.
There exist many different types of photographers and applications however, and as we said - they're different tools for different needs. Just as the D4 might be the perfect camera for some folks, there is another group that enjoys pure, abject simplicity - even favoring completely mechanical cameras. One thing we've always been fond of saying is that "A camera needs four controls - focus, aperture, shutter speed and release. Everything else is fluff." Not that Leica was the only company that made such cameras (they all used to be like this) but they are one of the few left that still do. The average camera sold today requires an instruction book consisting of at least a hundred pages or more. You could explain a Leica camera on one page - maybe two for digital bodies.
Maybe it's something as simple as your eyesight. Though this goes both ways for - and against - owning a Leica. Because they're mechanical by nature (lacking autofocus primarily) they're not for everyone. But on the other side of the coin, if your eyesight isn't quite what it used to be, using a camera that doesn't have pages and pages of menus and options which require reading glasses to operate can be a good thing.
There are a lot of photographers out there that have either always preferred and appreciated such a simple tool or have gotten fed up with the status quo and are re-discovering the old way. No complications, no technology, nothing - to get in the way of them concentrating on the task at hand of creating their art.
Anything made by man is subject to failure. If somehow a camera crawled forth from the primordial ooze and evolved over the last thousands or millions of years then sure, it would be "perfect." But such a thing does not exist (too bad!). But Leica cameras and lenses are known to "last a lifetime, maybe several." There is a lot of truth to that statement. Okay, so bodies and lenses might need a "CLA" (Clean, Lubricate and Adjust) every now and then, but then so does any mechanical device. See how far you get if you never change the oil in your car. But there's no designed-in obsolescence (a hotly debated concept), no cheap materials that fail prematurely, and a high standard of design, materials and assembly behind Leica products for the most part. There's also a one-on-one quality control that follows that mass-producers of commodity products just cannot compete against. If you take proper care of a purely mechanical Leica camera or lens, there's little reason it can't last not only your own lifetime - but be passed onto your children for use during theirs.
The digital revolution brought with it electronics and reliance on batteries. More points of failure. Arguably, cameras such as the M7 and certainly the M8 and M9/M9-P are subject to higher failure rates because of them. But even the latest digital Leica body pales in comparison to pro DSLRs in terms of number of parts both moving and electronic that can fail, especially on cameras that push 10-12fps (frames per second) and tossed around in the rain covering sports events. Again, different tools for different needs and a transistor on a Leica body is no more infallible as one in a pro DSLR. Luckily, everyone has a warranty. And also why a lot of Leica shooters simply prefer a mechanical body. Less complexity and no reliance on batteries - reducing the camera to its most basic elements and subject to the least likelihood of failure.
Leica offers a "Passport Warranty" with the cameras and lenses (which varies between America and Europe). You can register via traditional mail-in card or online. Where Leica goes beyond the typical warranty is by offering multiple options, or levels of service. You can purchase an additional year of warranty coverage for € 290. When it comes time to have something serviced, it's no secret that Leica can be rather slow. Not to make excuses here, but they are a small operation. If you need your gear returned to you faster, you can request what they call "Fast & Express Service" and will offer a turnaround of five business days for € 80 or two business days for € 170, respectively.
Lastly, you can have your camera upgraded and/or customized as new or different features come out. For example, you can upgrade your M9 to an M9-P, even changing colors. Previously you could upgrade your M8 (and still can).
Variety & Custom
Just to go on a brief tangent and expand on the upgrade programs mentioned above, keep in mind that you can also select from countless bodies and lenses spanning a period of 58+ years that are all compatible and are collectively known as "the M system." Starting with the M3 in 1954 through today - there are a bewildering number of combinations to suit your fancy or needs. In fact, through the use of an inexpensive metal adapter ring you can go back even further and use "LTM" (Leica Thread Mount) lenses on your M camera. If you prefer buying new, you can custom build your own M7 and MP bodies with Leica's Á La Carte Program.
If all else fails, there's always the "just because" catch-all. Maybe you just prefer the clean, bauhaus design of Leica cameras. Or maybe you appreciate the "finer things in life" like a mechanical rangefinder. Much like those folks that like fountain pens and mechanical watches for the same reason. Maybe you're a collector and have one of every body on your shelf or take delight in having a special edition on your desk. Perhaps buying a Leica is a reward to yourself for achieving some goal. Or maybe you're just well-to-do and it is a "status thing" for you. These are all valid reasons as well. Surely a lot of us could appreciate slipping into the driver seat of a fine German sports car, gripping the hand-stitched, leather-wrapped steering wheel, hitting the gas and having our brains pressed against the backs of our skulls as we rocket down the Autobahn.
There you have it. Some additional things to think about, or maybe think differently about when you talk of Leica gear. Sure, you can call them a luxury brand. But for many of us that shoot Leica gear, it's not about that. It's about the build quality, optical performance, consistency, simplicity and reliability of these tools that don't stand in our way, try to change our methods or thinking and let us concentrate on what matters most - getting the shot.
When you use the best gear available, it sets the bar higher for even your worst work. You cannot blame your gear any longer. There's no such thing as "the lens sucked" or "I was distracted while setting feature X and missed the shot." The M, whether mechanical or digital is as primal a tool as you'll find. Its simplicity ties directly into your mind's eye and responds only to your manipulations. While you might never live up to its capabilities, it will never hold you back from reaching them either.